– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Let’s take a break from our usual consideration of stress and the human mind and travel to a new topic – holidays.

The beach, the backyard, the summer fair, the road, the lake all take us away from the routine of work and school, interrupting the rigid patterns of life. The sense of relief that comes from legitimately vacating the stresses of work schedules, pressures and demands makes summer holidays a cherished landmark.

Family vacations contribute to healthy family functioning. Healthy holiday-time together acts as a kind of glue, promoting family bonding and communication and the emergence of new identities (Hey, mom actually knows how to have fun!). This cohesiveness isn’t some sort of mushy frill that we can do without. Family bonding is deeply healthy for teens and parents alike, reducing the incidence of just about every calamity you can imagine. Pre-holiday, as the members of a family dwell in their individual ruts, the barriers from work and school, technology and emotional avoidance chop a family up. The healthy holiday shifts the focus to shared experience if not to each other, giving time and space for loved ones to reconnect, joke around and open up.

You’ll notice that I’ve referred to ‘healthy’ holiday time. Many people see holiday time as an opportunity to set personal bests for getting drunk and stoned or worse. Addiction researchers are quite concerned by the impact that binging holidays have both in the short and long term, particularly with young people. During resort holidays, alcohol and drug use increases significantly for both habitual users and those who refrain at home. That hangovers just get worse as the drinking days wear on says our bodies detest the toxicity, and that a holiday from the holiday is needed.

But increased intoxication is not restricted to any one age group. Advertisers have been clearly teaching us that the good life requires a flow of alcohol and, by extension, drugs. And so vacationers obediently shop the LCBO. While sun screen protects us from the raw rays, protection from the high levels of social pressure isn’t so easy. We wish to belong, and shading ourselves from the social demands to get wasted can be a challenge. Reminding ourselves often of why we’re taking a holiday is one way to keep to ourselves on our own path.

Does a holiday do a good job of smoothing and soothing? Studies have shown that levels of stress and burnout do decrease heartily during a holiday. For the most part we feel better physically and emotionally, sleep better, get along better. For how long does the relief last? Not as long as we’d like. After 3 weeks most of us are back where we left off, indicating that relief fades as quickly as a tan. But the more recuperation we experience during the holiday, the more we’re protected against post-vacation workload stress.

I find it interesting that studies show that more conscientious workers have better moods during holidays, as if taking a break with a clear conscience is cleaner. Here, the rich just get richer. So to get the most out of our holiday it looks like we should get our work done, tie up the loose ends, and resist starting the holiday before it begins.

When you’re planning your upcoming holiday, consider the opportunity at hand. If you’re taking time with your family, look at how you might use that time together for togetherness. I found no research telling us that how much money we spend matters. Whether it’s playing monopoly or travelling to new places, it’s how we vacation that matters.

Workplace Stress

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

There are facts and there are fictions in this world of ours, and it’s a fact that it’s a fiction that an employer can save money and benefit the organization by neglecting the psychological needs of its workforce.

The value of looking after one’s employees derives not just from the wisdom of the ounce of prevention equalling the pound of cure. In complicated and time-lagged ways people respond to another’s caring with caring, to generosity with generosity, to effort with effort. People shine and are most likely to bring you their best in a climate of interpersonal acceptance and respect.

That might be all you need to remember and practice to save your business a boat load, but let’s look at some of the details just the same.

The costs of stress are exceptionally difficult to measure thoroughly, but they are clearly well in excess of $12 billion a year in Canada and are estimated to be about $7500 per worker per year in the U.S.

Because most organizations do not have their accounting tuned in to the bottom line costs of employee stress, big financial hits may be taken unknowingly. And the hits can come from many quarters, so to speak, reflecting the diversity of ways in which stress and our mental health affect our functioning. Lost productivity due to sick time, injury and low morale can be considerable.

Stress is the most significant factor driving absenteeism, grievances and (in the USA) worker compensation claims. Under stress and preoccupied with problems, we pay attention more poorly and so become more vulnerable to accidents.

Low morale is associated with higher levels of heart disease and depression. Morale problems can eat holes in motivation and goodwill. Low morale disables efficiency in many ways and increases the likelihood of maladaptive and destructive behaviours, and of poorer workplace relationships and team involvement. Some related workplace conditions such as aggression, bullying and social control are particularly noxious.

And how costly is it when valued and expensively trained but disgruntled employees leave an organization, which then further requires the recruitment and training of replacements?

The research is clear: Workers who feel that their organization is concerned with their well-being will respond with increased citizenship behaviours, enhanced commitment to their work and superior performance. It’s essential for the health of the organization that managers become aware of these contingencies instead of persisting in an alliance with values that are so Charles Dickens.

The idea that an organization is actually a complex, interdependent system is definitely not old school. But it affords a managerial perspective that recommends looking with rapt interest into the psychological health of one’s organization.

A 2010 paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology distilled the essential findings of over 200 studies and concluded that, “a supportive environment was the most consistent job resource in terms of explaining variance in burnout, engagement, and safety outcomes”. This finding was consistent across industries.

Contented employees are more productive, reliable and creative. Paying attention to the conditions that give rise to that contentment is a win-win and an advantageous business strategy.

A safer, more motivated and healthier workforce will help everyone sleep better at night, literally and figuratively. With better morale employees are more flexible around change and more likely to cooperate to help the common good.

A Gallup study concluded that, “If workers’ emotional needs are met, they become engaged with their companies, and their productivity, profitability, retention rate, and safety rate increase. They even get sick less often.” Otherwise, ‘Nice doing business to you’ might be the message employees get from their workplace.